When is an advertorial not an advertorial? When it’s ‘native advertising’

Native advertising

What is native advertising?

A version of this post first appeared on All Media Scotland on April 7, 2013.

Gotta love this change stuff, eh?

We’re no longer writers or story-tellers, we’re now content producers. We don’t crib, borrow or adapt ideas, we repurpose them. And my personal favourite? We no longer deal with advertorials – it’s now sponsored content on ‘native advertising’.

Say what? How this latest buzz phrase came about is beyond me, but native advertising is a term which is rattling around the  digital-savvy side of the media and gathering quite a lot of breathless hype on the way. Continue reading


The Art of Scannable QR Codes – A Tale of Abstract Painting, Gay Tours and Weddings Fairs

If you’re looking for a gimmick which divides opinion, look no further than QR Codes.

Critics call the abstract-looking, black and white, scannable codes a complete waste of time, which are largely ignored by the general population.

Fans cite them as a quick, easy and effective way to get information into the hands of smart phone users as and when they want it.

As is so often the case, the reality lies somewhere in between.

Anyone who has eagerly scanned a QR code only to be taken to a non-mobile friendly version of a brand’s standard website is likely to be let down. What’s the point?

Unscannable QR Code on a busy dual carriageway in Edinburgh


Worse, some QR Codes are in the most ridiculous places. Today I spotted this QR code in a totally inaccessible spot – 25ft up on a billboard in the middle of one of the busiest roads in and out of Edinburgh, with no place for drivers to stop.

Simply to take this photograph I had to drive into a bleak industrial estate, hoof it up on to a concrete flyover – and even with camera on maximum zoom could still barely make out the QR Code, let alone actually scan it.

Maybe this could even earn a place in the QR Code Hall of shame – this funny website dedicated to the worst fails involving impossible to scan or utterly pointless examples.

Until recently there’s also been the problem of finding a scanning app and downloading it to your smart phone. Then remembering where it is, opening it and using it, all of which can be problematic if you are in a busy shop or on a cold street wearing gloves.

Increasingly, though, smart phones are shipping with scanning software built in. Indeed, the excellent Nokia 800 Windows phoneI use has a one-touch code scanner which works like lightning. It will happily open the destination URL there and then or just as happily save it for viewing later. Which means I’m regularly scanning codes when I see them – on parked vehicles, magazines, bus shelters etc.

Nokia Lumia 800 Windows Phone

Built in QR Scanner

Once you have the habit of scanning QR codes the true utility becomes apparent. It can be really handy to scan a code and get information you really need or want – like the details of a property for sale or rent when you scan the QR code on a sales board.

Recently spotted a vehicle branded with bodywork for Black Kilt Tours, including a QR code. Since I’ve developed a yen for travelling the Scottish highlands and islands, I scanned it, only to learn it is a service specialising in just such tours – but for gay men.

So while it wasn’t for me, the QR codes still proved useful, sparing me any unnecessary online research, awkward phone calls or the possibility of rather uncomfortable coach trip. Moreover, it stuck in my memory. Brand awareness.

QR Code Art by Trevor Jones

QR Code Artwork

Today I’ve come across what struck me as an excellent use of QR codes, this time in an email newsletter from Edinburgh-based painter, Trevor Jones.  Since he’s a talented, professional artist, his abstract rendition of a QR code is arguably more eye catching than the standard mono square. But it goes further than that.

(* Disclaimer: I don’t know Trevor  Jones, work for him, or in other way represent the artist.)

When I tested whether his artwork was scannable, I was immediately taken to a mobile-optimised landing page, notifying me that to win a unique work of art by Trevor Jones, all I had to do was Like the Trevor Jones Art Facebook page, sign up for his newsletter – or to double the chance of winning, do both.

I duly did both. It was a frictionless process – and an object lesson for anyone else in business looking to build Facebook likes, or even more importantly, to gather qualified email leads.

Mobile optimised QR Code landing page

Mobile optimised

It didn’t stop there though. Jones has deviated from his usual colourful abstracts and there was also an intriguing come on in the original newsletter:

“I’ve just found out my QR code paintings will be on display at the Edinburgh Art Fair 16 – 18 November. I’ll be there over the three days to demonstrate how the paintings work and to answer any questions you may have about them such as, ‘Seriously. Why are you painting QR codes, Trevor? I kinda liked your older work better’.

“Ya, it’s true. I’m getting that but if you stop by the Art Fair I’ll gladly explain what all the fuss is about.  Promise.”

Now, truth be told, I’m a bit of an art pleb. Yet, depending on my diary, I might even look in on that art fair – and if I do, Mr Jones and his QR code will have been directly responsible for influencing my behaviour.

If that’s not enough for you, there’s also a mini site, called Mark of Beauty, dedicated to the artist’s representations of QR codes which he has been painting through 2012.

There he says:

When I began developing this new body of work exploring QR codes as art I realised there would be some who wouldn’t “get it” or who would even question its validity as painting…

“…The general consensus was that this artwork would indeed very likely divide opinions and, as an artist, what more could I ask for? Good art should stimulate debate and I really hope that these paintings encourage this. “

So it’s not only QR codes which divide opinion, but even works of art based on QR codes.

My advice? Don’t write off these little black and white squares as a useless gimmick.  A well-executed example which is of use to the target audience and delivers value, can greatly help them on their customer journey.

Such a campaign  can also make your brand or business memorable (the names Black Kilt Tours and Trevor Jones art are now firmly on my radar).

Yet there’s even more. Maybe you could use a QR code in an imaginitive way to help collect email addresses or to help spread your monthly newsletter? Somewhere along the line you might just help influence the behaviour of possible clients too.

This may not have painted a picture quite as eye catching as those by Trevor Jones. So here are a few more links to really clever and creative use of QR codes:





How Do You Tell Greedy, Grasping MPs from Hard-working Politicians? There’s an App for That!

Technology's stormtroppers

Technology's Stormtroopers

So, our MPs in the House of Commons are likely to each to be given their own iPads, eh?

Unsurprisingly, the story has split opinion.

The Sun branded the plan “barmy”, while quoting members of the Tax Payers’ Alliance who were gnashing teeth over the prospect of giving our elected politicians shiny “new toys”.
Coverage from the Press Association was more measured, reporting how a test rollout has already taken place; how buying in bulk for 650 MPs will yield savings; and how long-term costs will be cut through reduced paper and printing costs.

Take both sides with a pinch of salt.

Progress is almost always accompanied by protest. With the expenses scandal still fresh in memories, the knee jerk reaction was always going to involve claims of pampering the politicos by giving them gadgets.
Meanwhile the justification from the cross-party committee backing the plan is weak at best. At worst it is downright misleading.
Virtually anyone working in 2012 who has been in the workforce for a decade or more knows that the much-vaunted paperless office is near mythical.
So, the chances of our MPs (who can’t agree on climate change, renewables or recycling) suddenly becoming paragons of paperless virtue is laughable.

Many of those who already own iPads or other tablets know what fantastic consumption devices they are.
Fantastic for reading news and magazines; watching streaming video or catch-up TV; using social media sites like Facebook and Twitter; playing games and keeping entertained.
For productivity and more directly work-related activity? Meh – not so much. That’s why so many early iPad advocates still can’t see beyond their Macbook Air machines, or similar ultrabooks, when it comes to the must-have gadgets for work purposes.

Already our MPs are already entitled to three PCs and two laptops per office. It may well be most of those are used by aides and staff.  Others, I suspect, are expensive dust collectors, bookends or doorstops. Yet PCs, laptops and notebooks have never been seen as anything more than vital work tools, so no-one baulks at this.
With careful training our parliamentary representatives really could see the use of iPads or similar tablets cut costs, reduce the need for other PCs and laptops  and – yes – even reduce the amount of paper they use.
Hopefully though, you didn’t miss the most important word in there: training.

Some very smart and clever things are possible with an iPad. However, even after 18 months of owning one, I still rarely use it as a direct productivity tool
If we give our MPs tablets (and I’m not talking crushing them up and serving them in cocktails in the Commons bars to make them more pliant), no doubt many of them will quickly find ways to use them in useful, helpful and possibly even productive ways.  But others will be little more than expensive internet browsers.

The key to this issue isn’t to hand out iPads en masse. Nor is it to grumble, luddite-fashion, as those who run the country experiment with genuinely useful new technology.
The rollout of iPads to interested MPs should continue, with the caveat that those receiving them commit to at least a like-for-like reduction in the amount of money they can spend on other computing hardware and to paper reduction targets.
Consider that just about every business in the country has an IT usage policy and provides basic training for staff on applications from Word and Excel to sales software and email through to bespoke software.
More and more those training and policies now cover applications on the cloud.
The same should apply to MPs using iPads. They should be trained in usage of key productivity apps and encouraged to use them to streamline the business of being an MP.

Winning buy-in from a sceptical public the solution is easy: demonstrate tangible and measurable value – whether that means reduced hardware bills, lower paper usage, a reduced carbon footprint or greater engagement with constituents.
If our MPs really want shiny new iPads it should be clear they have to earn them.

Better and more accountable democracy? I’m afraid there still isn’t an App for that.

(For some recent musing on the  kind of work related productivity possible with a tablet computer, see my weekend Google + post, written from the comfort of my warm bed!)

Leak, Leaking, Leakey – Toilet Talk Can Leave Businesses Scared of Twitter

Twitter Logo

Twitter Leaks

I’m amused by a couple of Twitter stories today. But aside from raising a couple of wry smiles, these stories also raise a couple of business points.
First up this yarn from The Scotsman about tennis star Andy Murray’s mum leaving Black Rod infuriated:
Black Rod is a parliamentary official whose position has existed since 1350. And the current holder of that title was none too pleased when Judy Murray Tweeted out a picture from inside Parliament.
It seems the officious Black Rod considered this an inappropriate leak from inside the Mother of Parliaments.
Even funnier when you consider the offending photo was of a toilet door sign which read: “Women Peers”. In other words, the place where the mightiest women in the land go to, er, take a leak (women pee-ers?)
What trumped it for me though was the real name of Black Rod, a former military man known to his nearest and dearest as, Lieutenant-General David Leakey.

Next up is the story about a Twitter fuss which blew up when it appeared that Pulitzer Prize-winning author and playwright Cormac McCarthy had set aside his legendary distaste for modern technology and deigned to grace Twitter with his presence.
However, it turned out all to have been a hoax, perpetrated by none other than an aspiring (but as yet unpublished) author from Renfrewshire:
It’s a shame really. The lean, spare, yet beautiful prose which typifies McCarthy’s work means he’d be a must follow in 140 characters. And I bet there wouldn’t be a “just ate a tuna sandwich for lunch” Tweet anywhere to be found in his stream.

On a serious note, these are the kind of stories which show that the mainstream world is fully waking up to Twitter.
Yet they are also the kind of stories which may still prevent some businesses from using the new social media tools to extract the undoubted value they offer.

Do you remember a time there were similar stories about Facebook, YouTube – and before that email (yep, believe it or not, there was a time when email was viewed with suspicion as a threat to business).
Not to mention the days when the very internet and world wide web themselves were a cause for concern and frowny faces (real frowning expressions, as opposed to digital emoticons) among serious business people.
Later there were media stories galore about the risks of shopping online (my mum still won’t use a credit or debit card over the internet).
Hell, perm it back further and it’s easy to find historical reference to the time when the credible voices of the day were fearful and suspicious of telephones.

Now, try to imagine business world without websites or e-commerce. And no matter how full your inbox is, consider trying to do business without email.
Then consider the two stories above. It may take longer than a year, but at some point in the not-too-distant future Twitter usage will be so commonplace it’ll no longer merit stories like these.

If you work in a business which is still suspicious about Twitter – or other social media – then give us a call at Holyrood PR. We’ll be happy to show how it can work in your favour and help prepare you for that point when it is every bit as important to your product or service as a website, an online shopping cart or an email address.

Ours is info@holyroodpr.co.uk.
Or if you’re a bit more old school, you can get us on 0131 561 2244.
If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can get me on @scottgdouglas or the Holyrood PR team @holyroodpr.
However you choose to contact us, we’d love to hear from you.

Don’t Be Invisible – The Most Important Business Lesson From the ScotRail and ‘Big Man’ Case

Big Man tackles ScotRail fare dodgerRemember when social media was shiny, new and exciting – or to some people ominous, threatening and scary?

Now it is totally embedded in our daily lives to the point where we no longer think of it as anything other than normal.

In fact, this morning on BBC Breakfast two prominent stories summed up this fundamental shift.

Firstly the Beeb featured a Scottish story about a fare-dodging, foul-mouthed passenger, who was thrown off a busy train by a burly traveller.

The entire incident was videoed on another passenger’s mobile phone and has now gone viral on YouTube. That’s the only reason it even made local news services – let alone the might of the BBC’s flagship morning news show.

Secondly, the Beeb also reported how increasing numbers of winter callouts place pressure on the volunteer mountain rescue teams in the Lake District.

Those getting into trouble often use sat navs, apps on smartphones or even print outs from Google Maps to plan routes – while the old-timers in the rescue squad were urging walkers to stay low-tech, by carrying a basic OS Map, a compass and a torch.

This wasn’t a case of some grizzled outdoors type missing the tech bus – the rescue service spokesman cheerfully urged walkers to get themselves on YouTube and check out the treasure trove of videos with advice on how to stay safe in the hills and mountains over winter. Video again.

Why is this important? One reason worth considering is that put forward by Clay Shirky, the author and New York University professor, who says:

“Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.  It’s when a technology becomes normal, then ubiquitous and finally so pervasive as to be invisible that the really profound changes happen.  For young people today, our new social tools have passed normal, are heading to ubiquitous and invisible is coming.”

With these thoughts firmly on my mind I was on my way into work today, while listening to a another social media expert, Shel Holtz, one half of the superb For Immediate Release podcast.

Shel’s latest offering was a talk on a subject he is passionate about – why businesses should stop blocking employee access to social media (have a listen to the podcast here – the case is compelling).

He mentioned how one giant car maker took steps to block access to social media channels like Twitter and Facebook, amid fears it would cause worker productivity to dip. However, the company kept open access to YouTube – because of the huge wealth of training videos and material available there. YouTube again.

We may not yet have reached the invisibility of social media mentioned by Clay Shirky, but there’s little doubt we’re getting close when viral mobile phone videos are a mainstay of the BBC news, ageing mountain rescuers advise walkers to get safety tips from YouTube and car manufacturers name the video platform as a vital training resource.

Here’s the thing, though: while consumption of YouTube video is now entirely mundane, the production of video, particularly useful and informative video by business, is still in its infancy. Companies of all sizes are still nonplussed by how to use this powerful medium – or need convinced that they should use it all.

The grainy, wobbly fare dodging video has now achieved more than 775,000 views, been featured by the national broadcaster and provoked debate across the country on whether the burly do-gooder was right or wrong to take the law in to his own hands.

However, where is the response video from ScotRail (there isn’t even a written respone on their website media page)? The company has issued a carefully worded corporate statement  which could have been far more impactful if delivered by a genuinely concerned company executive. Of course, that may be just too sensitive at the moment, with the police investigating the incident and imminent legal action likely.

Even if that is the case, where is the video explaining the company’s advice for future passengers who may be confronted by an abusive or troublesome travellers? Should they sit tight and say nothing? Or should they step in to offer verbal support to harassed train staff?

Let’s not forget the foul-mouthed teen who was ejected from the train, who has variously claimed he had misplaced his ticket, was sold the wrong ticket or was half asleep (and as a result confused and disorientated) when confronted by the inspector.

This reinforces how ScotRail would benefit from easy-to-find videos aimed at passengers –  advice on purchasing the correct  ticket; how to use the ticket vending machines;  or how to resolve a situation if you find yourself on a train having lost a valid ticket and without the funds to pay for a replacement.

The reality is that ScotRail has no presence on YouTube (in fact, this claims to be the Scotrail (sic) channel, but I assume is a fake). No videos at all that I could find.

ScotRail video advert

Video - but only for adverts.

That’s also true for the company’s corporate website, where the only video I could find was a link to a TV advert – and disappointingly that ad was on the FAQ page, the exact place that might most benefit from easy to follow ‘How To’ videos.

This all seems even more of an irony, when you consider the company has a page on its website dedicated to giving advice to rail enthusiasts who want to shoot pictures or videos on ScotRail stations and property.

No slight intended on ScotRail. The  majority of businesses of all sizes still seem painfully slow to recognise and benefit from the power of video as part of the communication mix.

So what lessons can your business learn from the ScotRail fare dodge video? How about this: The technology which delivers video is now so pervasive as to be invisible – which means that your business can no longer afford to be.

Your customers now expect to find at least some kind of visible, useful and relevant presence on YouTube or other video platforms. Many customers will go to YouTube as the first place they search for information,  making it a massive search engine in its own right, just like parent company, Google.

If you want to find out what affordable, online video could do to benefit your business, give me a call.

A Peek Inside Googleplex 2 Tells us the Boss Loves Irn Bru

Eric Schmidt lego portrait

Google Boss Loves Irn Bru?

Trendy tech companies in Silicon Valley are renowned for their hip and funky office spaces.

Typically staff with the big players like Google, Facebook and Apple go to work in sprawling complexes where they are surrounded by artwork, fun stuff like  ping-pong tables and where colleagues zip around on roller blades, scooters or Segway machines.

Google in Mountain View, California was probably the biggest trendsetter. Staff perks at the ‘Googleplex’ include free access to fine dining, laundry services and on site hairdressers.

In the heady tech bubble in Silicon Valley, the plentiful and exciting new start ups seem just as often to be judged on how cool their offices are, as much as how useful their software or hardware is likely to be.

However, the grandaddy of office cool remains Google, which has managed to export its love of quirky, fun and colourful workspaces to its New York base, the search giant’s second biggest global office.

Tech-followers have been salivating over the latest picture from inside Googleplex 2 – which seems to include a passionate love affair with the multi coloured plastic building bricks from Danish toy mesiters, Lego.

What really caught my eye was the Lego portrait of Google Chairman, Eric Schmidt (see photo at the top of the page) who ran the company as CEO for 10 years, before passing over the reins to co-founder Larry Page earlier in 2011.

Schmidt was right here in Edinburgh during August, when he became the first person from non-traditional media to give the keynote speech at the Edinburgh International TV Festival, known as the MacTaggart Lecture after Scots TV producer James MacTaggart.

You can watch the speech on YouTube or read it at the Media Guardian among the huge selection of online coverage. From that commentary you can quickly tell that Schmidt talked about the UK education system, media regulation and the convergence of TV broadcasting and the internet.

What this wonderful Lego portrait tells me, though, is that  Schmidt’s Edinburgh visit must also have turned him on to Scotland’s ‘Other national drink’, Irn Bru, which must surely explain the use of ‘Phenomenal’.

The Irn Bru ‘Phenomenal’ campaign was the work of Scotland’s best-known ad people, the Leith Agency.

Funny thing about ad agencies is that they also favour funky offices populated by trendy young things is artfully-frayed street chic who play ping pong, adorn their walls with self-ironic artwork and spend their days admiring each other’s Apple  Mac products (at least, that’s what I imagine!).

Indeed, I blogged about the Leith Agency‘s nearest rival, Newhaven, way back in 2007 – and I suspect the two agencies spend considerable amounts of creative time and effort trying outdo each other on the ‘coolest offices’ front (maybe the Leith Agency could purchase the Lego portrait to steal a wee march on their rivals?).

Perhaps it’s a bit of whimsy on my part to imagine the smart and erudite Mr Schmidt developed a taste for Scotland’s favourite sugared water hangover cure during his whistlestop Scottish sojourn.

Whether or not Scotland’s orange coloured fizzy drink is available in Google’s near legendary canteens, the Google Offices seem pretty Phenomenal.

If Something Seems to Good to Be True, It’s Probably Not True. So What About Groupon?

Groupon: Runaway Success

Just a few short months ago the online discount service Groupon famously turned down an offer from Google.

The news raised more than a few eyebrows because of the amount of money the search giant offered to acquire the online group coupon service – a mind-boggling  $6 billion. Yes, that’s billion. With a B.

If you don’t already know what Groupon is, it works like this:

1 – A business offers a deal for its products or services with at least 50% off (thought discounts can be up to 90%).

2 – Groupon sends the offer round its database of users and they are asked to share it widely on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

3 – The business sets the number of customers needed to make the deal worthwhile for it – and the offer is only valid when that number is reached.

4 – Bargain hunters flock to your store/restaurant/business in an intensive, short period to redeem their vouchers.

The service so far is an astonishingly successful, runaway success story.

Baby faced boss man Andrew Stone decided not to check out with a hefty chunk of Google change in his hipper. Which suggests  he is super confident the service has a long-term future.

Perhaps unsurprising, since Groupon had revenues of $760 million in 2010; it’s headed for $4 billion in revenues this year; and has 70 million global subscribers.

The latest news on Groupon is that it is going to float on the US stockmarket – what is referred to in the states as an Initial Public Offering (IPO).

Bloomberg has reported Groupon is speaking to bankers about an IPO valuation of $25 billion (yes, the B-word again). That’s higher than the $23 billion Google achieved when it  went through an IPO and became a publicly traded company, subject to market regulation.

On a recent episode of This Week In Tech podcast, online luminary Jeff Jarvis asked a live crowd of tech lovers at The South by South West event: “How many of you use Groupon?”

His question was met with silence and Jarvis added: “Then why is it so big? I don’t get it.”

I share his bafflement. I struggle to understand how businesses can sell product at a fraction of the usual price and from what little money they take, then have to pay Groupon.

I also have doubts about how many of those bargain-hunters will convert to long-term customers.

When news of the Groupon IPO broke I put a question out on LinkedIn asking if other people shared my suspicion that it was grossly over-valued and likely to pop. Turns out quite a few long term web watchers and smart people whose opinion I value are equally bemused by Groupon’s success.

Maybe we have a shared cyncisim? Certainly I’ve always adhered to the view that if something appears too good to be true, then it almost certainly isn’t true.

I can’t shake that feeling about Groupon – but then, I’ve never used it, either as a business or a customer.

So I’d love to hear from companies or businesses which have used the service repeatedly and found it a great way to  build a new, engaged and loyal customer base.

Likewise I’d be keen to hear from any business owner or operator who has used Groupon – and definitely won’t be hurrying back to use it again.

If you have any thoughts or experiences to share, the comment section below awaits you!